The Quest for El Dorado

Reiner Knizia

ARTIST: Vincent Dutrait and Franz VohwinKEL

Publisher: Ravensburger

Wonder what would happen if El Dorado is actually discovered right now. Can you imagine how a country would deal with the publicity? (Photo credits: Eric Martin@BGG)

Goes without saying Reiner Knizia has already produced many award winners and recruited a legion of die hard fans. Many who know his work also know that he is having a mini resurgence with games that both excite his fan base and new gamers alike. While I argue that Orongo, a much underrated Knizia that came out in 2016 marked the start of his “comeback”, it is undoubtedly this game, Quest for El Dorado that is the crown jewel of his recent designs. Where Knizia will go from here is not clear, but he appears to be primed for another grand run that will keep his rabid fans salivating for more. Indeed, Babylonia, My City are highly anticipated games that came on deck recently.

There is not much I can say about El Dorado that hasn’t been said by his fan base. El Dorado is essentially Knizia’s take on deck building. Rather, it is how he uses deck building in a slightly different way by melding the mechanism in a race game. I mean honestly, in hindsight, it just makes so much sense to use deck building in a race game. Knizia uses all the ingredients of a deck builder ala Dominion but with subtle tweaks to make it better and more thematic….to make it more Knizian so to speak. I believe the game is superior to Dominion in many ways, but then again, Dominion was the pioneer of the genre, so probably not a fair comparison since all the subsequent deck builders stood upon the shoulders of Dominion.

I don’t know if El Dorado is the first race game that uses deck building but I wouldn’t be surprised it wasn’t. However, El Dorado is the first one I have heard of. In the game, players each have an explorer (or 2 in a 2p game) and the goal is to move the explorer across different terrains to reach El Dorado. First to reach wins the crown. If there is a tie and both players that reach the fable city on the final turn, then tie breaker goes to the player who collected the most barriers. More on the barriers later. In any case, part of the genius for El Dorado is the modular map boards. Each map spots a mixture of different hexagonal grid with different terrains. By combining the boards in different orientations, there is an infinite number of configurations that can be assembled. It is possible not to play the same map twice. The way the modular map pieces are put together really matters because it will determine how hard or easy the terrain is to traverse. Of course, the board is equally hard or equally easy for everyone which sets up different dynamics within each game.

Each player-controlled Indy Jones meeple must go through different terrains in order to reach the City of Gold. The terrains include jungles, lakes, villages and rocky areas. To move from hex to hex, players have a starter deck of cards with corresponding movement points for each terrain. Players then upgrade their decks during the game by purchasing new cards, no different from Dominion. While the starter deck have a basic hand that allows you to cross almost all the terrains, you must upgrade to your deck with more powerful versions to traverse some terrain. For example, some hexes have up to 3 terrain icons of the same type and since you cannot combine card values, you must have the cards necessary to go through the impasse. Usually though, the tougher terrains are rewarding because they are short cuts. You can take the longer distance which have an easier terrain, but will likely take a few more turns to catch up. I find this aspect incredibly well-balanced. Do you slog through your deck to wait for the card that takes you across or bite the bullet and run around the corner?

To backtrack a little, each turn players will draw 4 cards from their deck and play as many as they want. Cards can allow you to move or be used as coin to pay for card upgrades to build your deck. Each card is worth half a coin, but there are of course treasure cards that are more valuable and can be used to buy more advanced cards. Treasure cards also act as terrain cards when passing through village hexes. You need to play the treasure cards to pass through. Like Dominion, all purchased cards are placed in the discard pile and picked up in later turns when the deck is reshuffled.

Importantly, at the end of the round, players get a choice to keep any amount of unplayed cards or discard it to draw back up to 4. This is a very important tweak Knizia introduced that is different from Dominion. In Dominion, you play what you get and all cards are discarded at the end of your turn. You don’t really get to plan. In El Dorado, by allowing players to hold on to certain cards, you can actually look ahead and decide if it is worthwhile to hold on to a valuable card needed to cross a terrain. This small rule change alters a push your luck deck building exercise to one that affords players a small measure of control when the deck is recycled. If you can see a long stretch of water coming up, you may want to hold on to that paddle card instead of discarding it. Of course, holding on that card also means slowing you down as you get only 3 cards from the deck. Deciding how long you want to hold on to a specific card is pretty delicious.

Many cards are valuable, but just like any deck builder, buying too many cards will clog your deck. It is tempting to constantly upgrade, but much depends on mapping out the terrain and planning ahead. Some purple cards in the market are extremely useful, but only good for one time use. It is then discarded. However, in many situations, a powerful card at the right time and right place is all you need to get through a tough spot. There is also much to be said about thinning the deck as there are locations on the board which allows you to permanently discard cards.

The game is fun, period. Like all Knizia’s designs, he really understand how to strip the game to its bare essentials and give you the basic minimum to enjoy the game. He believes in players forming their own narrative when playing the game. In the case for El Dorado, the theme is unmistakable though, so narrative will be the race itself. Now, there is luck of the draw with any deck builder but boy, the race can be pretty close. However, I would contend that skillful play will always come up on top. For example, there are major choke points on the board and if someone gets there first, you may have to wait your turn or take a longer route since bypassing a meeple is not allowed. So deciding when to push ahead for the advantage or to hold on to a card is critical. Sometimes, making that single move to occupy a hex is needed to gain an advantage or fend off another player.

Buying upgrades should only be done as necessary and not because you have the money to do so. An inefficient deck is a death knell for any deck builder and it is no different here. It is possible for the race to be lopsided if someone who skilled is pitted against a novice. But there are ways to catch up and I have seen come from behind victories. By moving slower, you can try to hoard valuable cards or go slightly off track to claim special power tokens from caves. These extras can be unleashed in a series of turns to close the gap. Some cards when played, allow you to draw more cards and so, allow you to move quickly across different terrains. I feel all cards are useful in the right context and one can really make up ground to catch the leader if the cards are chained properly.

I think the game is truly a winner on many levels. Folks who like a race game should really look into this. Deck builders are a dime a dozen but not when combined with a race game. Again, I don’t recall a deck builder race game out there. The game is short and sweet but I think the kicker here is the modular board. For a race game of this sorts, I’d argue that having a modular board is essential. If one keeps playing the same layout, the game would quickly become stale. But the variable terrain transitions from different boards makes all the difference. Whether one moves swiftly across one type of terrain or having a sharp transition makes all the difference in terms of difficulty of the circuit. One can design almost an infinite combinations of maps to play and each assembly will provide a different challenge. Oh, and the fact the game is short and compact makes it all the better.

The game currently has one expansion and one spin-off. The spin-off itself, El Dorado the Golden Temples is worth considering. The game play is largely similar but players continue the narrative by moving inside the temple. The map is now non-linear and players must visit three locations to pick up some gems and then head back to the starting spot to win the game. I don’t normally consider expansions, but this one deserves some attention since I enjoy the base game. Plus both games can be combined in a mega-format from start to end.

I often wonder if I am biased in reviewing Knizia’s games since I drank the Knizia kool-aid a long time ago. Then again, when I look back at his ludography, there are clearly games from him which weren’t for me. I even wrote a geeklist “Top 10 Reiner Knizia disappointments” to document the duds. Well, those games have since left my collection. But El Dorado is edging upwards on the Knizia totem pole as the urge to replay hasn’t really gone away. This review is most certainly not for Knizia fans because most likely, you ALREADY own a copy of El Dorado. For everyone else, I strongly recommend El Dorado if you want a fun, short race game that has enough to satisfy gamers both casual and veteran alike.

Final words: Great!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s